By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/22/2005 5:33:42 PM ET 2005-07-22T21:33:42

NEW YORK - Over the past three decades, the prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Despite the fact that kids are still participating in organized sports, experts link a dramatic decline in unstructured outdoor play to the growing increase in childhood obesity.

Dierdre Campbell is a Chicago parent who’s helping to build a place where memories are made.

“When I was a kid,” says Campbell, “I would run outside and whatever I wanted to do outside, that was my playground. I didn't spend a lot of time in the house unless I was reading a book.”

But today, her own kids — 3-year-old Savannah and 8-year-old Alanah — are hooked on a different kind of play. Unless they're watching re-runs of the old Andy Griffith show, these days the closest many kids get to fishing is when they're casting a line in a video game.

In fact, since 1995, the National Sporting Goods Association says the number of kids biking, swimming and fishing has declined by more than 20 percent.

High-tech gadgets aren't the only reason. Experts also say new housing developments often restrict outdoor play and schools are cutting back on recess to concentrate on academics.

And then, there's the fear factor — even though statistics show child abductions are actually declining.

Meanwhile, kids waistlines are expanding and health problems are on the rise.

“We're going to continue seeing people gaining weight,” says Dr. Leslie Walker, a pediatrician at Georgetown University Hospital, “if we don't as a community change how we let kids exercise and have free play outside.”

To get kids outside again, a non-profit group called KaBOOM is building 1,000 playgrounds nationwide and getting families involved.

“It's just the freedom,” explains KaBOOM parent volunteer Nate Jones. “The freedom of just running, running and jumping, just how kids naturally do.”

Richard Louv, an author and child advocate, says outdoor time can help spark a child's creativity, encouraging them to use all of their senses.

“A little bit of nature goes a long way for parents,” says Louv. “They don't have to take their kids to Yosemite.”

In fact, experts say kids can benefit even by doing something as simple as walking through a garden and taking a closer look to see what's there.

Meanwhile, back at the playground, some communities are building on a hope that old-fashioned child's play can make a comeback.

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